By Matt Neglia
What a bizarre year. Who could have ever predicted that 2020, the start of a new decade, would be the year that the movie industry would change forever? Despite starting the year saying that I wanted to watch fewer movies in 2020 than I had in previous years so I could focus on other projects for the website, I still found myself watching over 225 movies thanks to digital screeners and constantly being at home during quarantine. I’m not complaining, though! There were some genuinely great films to be seen in 2020, even if some of my most anticipated of the year got pushed back to 2021. I saw some films in 2020 that were supposed to have release dates this year, which have been moved to 2021 but are still qualifying for the end of the year awards. For this list, I’m not going to get caught up in “the rules” of what makes a 2020 movie vs. what makes a 2021 movie. This is my list of what was (for me) the best films of 2020.
”Mank” should’ve been in the top 3 on this list. The expectations I had for David Fincher’s latest were probably too high and even though I was slightly disappointed on my initial viewing of the film, subsequent rewatches has allowed me to appreciate what it was we were given and to get more comfortable with the film’s flaws involving its pacing and hollow screenplay by Fincher’s late father, Jack Fincher. Because this was a movie made for cinephiles, I feel like I was predisposed to love it no matter what and while that’s certainly true, it took a bit of time for me to get here. It also fell from a higher placement on this list than where it was initially but I still cannot get over the nods to “Citizen Kane,” the mono soundscape, the score by Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross, the costumes, production design, old-school editing by Kirk Baxter and the absolutely gorgeous black and white cinematography by Erik Messerschmidt. The devil is in the details and David Fincher is one of the most meticulous directors working today, and as an exercise in technical craftsmanship, “Mank” continues to stun me.
9. Sound Of Metal
A film that got even better on multiple rewatches and found its way into my top 10 after being on the outside for a bit, “Sound of Metal” is one of the most impressive directorial debuts of the year. What Darius Marder was able to accomplish with this highly immersive drama is nothing short of astounding. Every time the screenplay had an opportunity to go one way and veer into melodrama, it took the more sensitive, highly introspective route and continued to surprise me at every turn. The performances from Riz Ahmed, Paul Raci and Olivia Cooke are some of the best you will see all year, each one finding that fine line between “acting” and being “natural.” Putting a spotlight on the deaf community, their struggles but also their selflessness in wanting to help one another accept their new circumstances in life, the film is both respectful, enlightening and unexpectedly, deeply serene. And for a film called “Sound of Metal,” the sound work in this movie is not only the best of the year but will most likely go down as some of the best of the decade.
8. Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Here is another film that packed an emotional punch when I saw it way back at Sundance earlier this year and took me by surprise with its raw realism, deep empathy and staying power. Director Eliza Hittman sensitively directs this teenage pregnancy drama to be the “anti-Juno,” as she pulls no punches in tracking 17-year-old Autumn Callahan’s (a mesmerizing Sidney Flanigan in one of the breakout roles of the year) journey, traveling state lines to get an abortion. “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” avoids any politics about the issue and instead, Hittman’s camera gets up close and personal with its subject through many closeups, allowing us to feel her anxiety, confusion and bravery. The title sequence of the film is one of the most jaw-dropping pieces of acting you will see all year as the camera holds on Flanigan’s face for what feels like forever (and to her character, it probably is) as she’s forced to answer questions with the replies “Never, rarely, sometimes, or always.” Maybe the best example all year of a film feeling both so personal yet so universal at the same time.
7. The Trial Of The Chicago 7
Sue me. Take me to court. Go ahead. Say what you want to say but I cannot help it. I’ve seen Aaron Sorkin’s latest directorial effort (after his 2017 film “Molly’s Game“) four times now and each time, it works for me as a piece of entertainment. I understand that it gets a lot of history wrong so that it can play better as a “movie.” I also understand that it doesn’t cut deep enough into its very complex social issues that it is trying to tackle. Yes, it is cheesy. Yes, the labels that this is “the film of the moment” have been overblown. However, I’m a sucker for Sorkin’s dialogue and the propulsive energy his words and the film’s editing brings to “The Trial Of The Chicago 7” made it zip on by for me. The performances from the cast also help this one to rise to the top for me, as everyone receives a moment to stand out and deliver that delicious Sorkin dialogue with great enthusiasm. Everyone will have their “favorite” of this large cast but for me, it has to be Mark Rylance as defense counsel William Kunstler. Also, a special mention goes to Frank Langella as the twisted and highly biased Judge Julius Hoffman. No other character in 2020 made me want to punch them in the face more than him. So, mission accomplished, Sorkin.
Pixar does it again. And Pete Docter continues to be the Pixar director with a perfect track record as far as I’m concerned. The last time a Pixar film found its way into my top 10 was with his previous film “Inside Out,” and I’m convinced that the man can do no wrong. “Soul” is that rare film for both kids and adults that, admittedly, is always a sweet spot for me when appreciating what the medium of animation can accomplish in storytelling. This might be the studio’s most ambitious effort yet as they attempt to tackle life’s biggest questions while trying to communicate those ideas and themes to children in ways that they will understand but will hopefully not make them scared or depressed. Simultaneously, its appreciation for life and living in the moment is something that many adults need to continually be reminded of as we too get lost in our day to day lives, focused on our “spark,” and missing life as it passes us by. The score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (with additional music provided by Jon Batiste) is the best of the year. The animation is Pixar’s best yet, creating a New York City that feels so lived in (it especially made me miss the city’s vibrancy during this year of quarantine) and an afterlife that is wonderous and imaginative.
5. The Father
How is this Florian Zeller’s directorial debut? How!? “The Father” is too good. Scarily good, in fact. What he was able to accomplish here, adapting his own play to the screen in his first movie, is a masterstroke and possibly the best depiction of dementia ever captured on film. In a legendary career filled with many iconic performances, the 83-year-old Academy Award winner, Anthony Hopkins, delivers not only his best performance ever as the aging Anthony, but in my estimation, it stands as one of the single best performances ever committed to film. Zeller’s use of editing, the production design and the fluid cinematography plunges us into the character’s central point of view, giving us an inside look at this mind’s deteriorating mind. The result is quite possibly the best horror film of the year and the most creative exercise of getting us to experience a character’s point of view since Christopher Nolan’s “Memento.” Special mention also goes to the supporting cast of this film, who all deliver equally strong work around Hopkins, especially Olivia Colman. In a year filled with many stage-to-screen adaptations, many of which failed to escape their stage roots and truly feel “cinematic,” Zeller’s debut was by far the best.
No surprise here. It wouldn’t be a top 10 list without Chloé Zhao’s “Nomadland,” a film which many have hailed as the best of the year and with good reason too! It’s objectively great. Even if you do not love it, you cannot deny Zhao’s artistry, her keen eye for beauty in the natural world (the cinematography by Joshua James Richards evokes a luminous that only Terrence Malick can rival) and her ability to get such strong performances from both her working and non-working actors. Frances McDormand is known for her quirky characters, with qualities that leap off the page and into our collective consciousness. As the traveling “houseless” Fern, her work is very understated. Maybe the most understated of her career, as she fits in seemingly with the natural work being done by the film’s non-actors around her. All the while, she still delivers a performance that captivates us, makes us want to know more about her character and shocks us at every turn with her authentic qualities. She’s the perfect surrogate for us to experience a side of America that is rarely depicted on film. Zhao precisely knows it’s the people you meet along the journey that makes the journey worth taking, even if the destination is unknown.
3. I’m Thinking Of Ending Things
I’m still trying to unlock the many mysteries and wonders of Charlie Kaufman’s latest film. I can totally appreciate and understand why his latest directorial effort may be a tough sit for anyone. Kaufman has always been eccentric, injecting his films with an undercurrent of darkness and sadness that makes his work highly unappealing for many. “I’m Thinking Of Ending Things” is the true definition of a love it or hate it movie. There is no middle ground. And I am firmly in the love camp. Recalling Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch’s work, Kaufman’s strange screenplay is a feat of adaptation as he translates scenes and story beats from the book in ways only the medium of film can accomplish. The result is a maddening, beautiful and highly existential trip into the mind of a character that we think is one thing throughout the film’s running time but then we get to the end and we realize we’ve been watching a different movie altogether. The purposefully jarring editing, the ever-changing costumes, the haunting score by Jay Wadley and the detailed framing by Łukasz Żal are all utilized by Kaufman to tell his story, showing us that he’s more in control of his craft than ever before. For many, that will feel too indulgent as they’ll believe Netflix allowed Kaufman to run wild with his latest, losing his audience along the way, but for me, it’s a fascinating exploration of what the art of cinema can accomplish if you allow yourself to go along for the long, cold and dark car ride.
Maybe it’s been what the last four years have done to all of us. Perhaps I am just a sucker for movies that highlight the American Dream. Either way, I cannot deny the tremendous impact that “Minari” had on me when I saw it for the first time at Sundance and every time I’ve seen it since. During a time where our country has been more closed off to immigrants than ever before, it was refreshing and cathartic to see a movie about, not so much the immigrant experience during a time where America “was great,” but an American experience of a family hoping to build a future for themselves in the land of opportunity. And there’s absolutely nothing in Less Isaac Chung’s “Minari” that is political. You would expect it to go that route at some point but it wisely does not. It keeps its narrative focused on its characters, the main family unit, how they support each other during times of triumph and how they save each other during times of hardship. The film features what is easily my favorite ensemble of the year and the score by Emile Mosseri (“The Last Black Man In San Francisco“) is so beautiful it holds the power to bring tears to your eyes when you hear it. Filled with a level of honesty and empathy that is sorely lacking in the way we treat immigrants and others in society today as a whole, “Minari” re-affirmed my faith in humanity and made me optimistically hopeful for the future that lies ahead.
1. Promising Young Woman
If Disney+’s “Hamilton” was considered “a film,” it most likely would’ve dethroned the queen of this list. But that is not the world we live in. And there has been nothing else since January of 2020, when I saw this breathtaking film at Sundance for the first time, that has risen up to challenge it. “Promising Young Woman” is so many things at once that many have taken issue with the film’s erratic tonal shifts and its divisive ending. It’s at one point a dark comedy, the next moment, it’s a sweet romantic comedy, the next minute, it’s a searing revenge drama. It made me laugh; it made me cry; it made me happy; it made me fearful; it made me angry; it made me think. To me, this movie was the whole package of what you want to take away from a cinematic experience, a roller coaster of emotions. Emerald Fennell’s message in this movie is about as blunt as a sledgehammer to the face and will undoubtedly provoke audiences into vigorous debates about its intentions and how well it executes them. But most importantly, the film’s clear thesis on sexual assault will hopefully serve as a wake-up call for those young “dudebros” who are still too ignorant to “get it.” Carey Mulligan delivers her career-best work in this film as a new feminist icon, Cassie Thomas, the single most iconic original female character written for the screen since Charlize Theron’s Furiosa in “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Playing an avenging angel who is having trouble moving on from her own personal trauma and anger over what happened to her best friend many years ago, Mulligan is ferocious, darkly amusing and oh so ever captivating in how she commands the screen and our compassion. She and Emerald Fennell deserve any and all awards attention they are set to receive this year. And going back to Fennell for a moment, much like Florian Zeller earlier on this list, it’s astonishing to see that this is another directorial debut. Fennell has had experience with her hit show “Killing Eve” before, so maybe I shouldn’t be surprised at how well she utilizes the music cues (this film has the best soundtrack of the year), the film’s editing to maintain its momentum, the pastel costumes and art direction to showcase Cassie’s mindset and the impactful sound work. It all comes together to give us something entertaining and deeply troubling that will undoubtedly spark a conversation. Not everyone is going to respond well to it. That’s ok. I will never take anyone’s criticism of this movie away from them, especially if it’s drawing upon their own life experiences towards the film’s bold and surprising ending. Anyone who knows me knows that I live for the conversations that can come about when we all share our experiences with a piece of art and “Promising Young Woman” provides that discourse in full force, which is why it is, for me, the best film of 2020.
What do you think of my list? Let us know in the comments section below or on our Twitter account. Be on the lookout for more of our Top 10’s for 2020 as we say goodbye to the year and say hello to a new one. I do wish to say that I reserve the right to change this list if a film that debuts in January-February that is qualifying for the 2020 awards season happens to find its way onto here. It’s a weird time and I’m sure everyone will have their own way of doing their Top 10’s but this is mine. Thank you everyone for a memorable year. Our annual NBP Film Awards and the NBP Film Community Awards will come in a few weeks to allow you all some time to see those final 2020 awards season contenders. Till then, Happy New Year!
You can follow Matt and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @NextBestPicture